A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
23 January 2011
Text:  Matthew 4:12-23

She’d just been called as the senior pastor of a tall steeple church.  Her predecessor asked for a private meeting and presented her with three numbered envelopes.  “Open these if you run up against a problem you don’t think you can solve,” he said.    Things went along pretty smoothly, but three months later, the honeymoon was over and she was beginning to catch a lot of heat.  She remembered the former pastor’s words and went to the file drawer and took out the envelope marked #1, and read, “Blame your predecessor.”   At the next session meeting, and skillfully woven into sermons, the pastor hinted at how badly she had found things upon arrival, and that seemed to calm the congregation.   For a little awhile.   But before long, there were murmurs of discontent and pledging was down.   Having learned from her previous experience, the pastor quickly opened the second envelope. The message read, “Pray without ceasing.”  This she did, and the situation improved.  After a couple of years, the church again fell on difficult times; now the murmurs had increased to downright criticism.  The pastor went to her office, opened the third message and read, “Prepare three envelopes.”

Well.  It’s a fiction story, with no basis in reality. At least not here!   But it reminds us that life get complicated.   We need help to navigate life’s highways that are vast but full of potholes and blind alleys, and seem always to be under construction.    We need ….light.  Light to help us find our way.  In Betsy’s children’s message last week, she showed a night light and asked what it was for.  The response was immediate and expected:  to see in the dark.  But then a little boy quietly added, “Well, some kids are afraid at night, so it helps them sleep better.”   When we are honest, can any of us say we are never afraid of the darkness that envelops us at times?  War, concerns about national security, economic uncertainties have all contributed to a diminished sense of control over personal well-being.  Environmental issues, information overload. . . . the poverty of little children in our own city:  we need illumination to counter discouragement and even paralysis, and ignite or re-ignite our moral imagination and hope.   We face dragons in our own lives too—strained relationships with family members, financial difficulties, heartbreaking loss.   As a congregation on the threshold of transition, we need better light than simply to harrumph “Here comes two years of turmoil” and something more effective than preparing three envelopes.  

“Light” references abound in Judeo-Christian Scripture (and in the sacred writings of other religions)—and you’ve seen some of them woven into the liturgy and hymns this morning.  The morning gospel text actually quotes centuries-old promises proclaimed by Isaiah to connect them with the opening ministry of Jesus of Nazareth.  Listen for God’s Word—and directions to where the light is—in the reading from the gospel according to Matthew, in the fourth chapter at the 12th verse.

MATTHEW 4:12-23
Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. 13He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, 14so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: 15“Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles— 16the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned.” 17From that time Jesus began to proclaim, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”
18As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 19And he said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” 20Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 21As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them. 22Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.
23Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.

Last Sunday we slipped without fanfare into the season on the church calendar known as “ordinary time,” set between the high holy days of Christmas and Easter.  It’s aptly named; the peace and goodwill generated by celebration and cease-fire, family reunions and time off, have devolved into normalcy—and the mixed bag that entails.  The snow that created a picture-perfect scene worthy of an American Greetings card has worn out its welcome.   The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death, light has dawned.  Remember how we sang about it, just a month ago?   Light and life to all he brings, risen with healing in his wings.  God sent us the One on a silent, holy night who is “love’s pure light.”    Have we forgotten so quickly?

The picture Matthew paints of Jesus’ first days of ministry reveals where to find the light and how it illumines and heals human life.   Born into relative obscurity, Jesus moves to the more cosmopolitan city of Capernaum to announce the coming Kingdom.  He “goes public” with his message to demonstrate that it is not about a private, individualistic spiritual experience but one firmly rooted in the world’s complexity, diversity, beauty, and terror.

And listen to his first sermon!  Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near.  Here, repentance is not focused upon confessing and seeking forgiveness for wrongs committed.  It means going a new way and embracing a new set of values; it means a change of direction and a change of heart.  Jesus calls disciples to follow his lead, to join him in making a difference through acts of compassion, healing, and restoration. 

Friends, maybe our path remains cloudy and confusing because we are looking for light in the wrong places.  Maybe we prefer the darkness we know to the penetrating light that exposes our self-absorption, our worship of things, the illusion of control we cling to so tenaciously.   Jesus says, “Follow me,” but it’s pretty hard to do that when one’s line of sight is focused exclusively inward.  Jesus calls us out of ourselves and our lives to follow him, to go where he goes, to do what he does.  Very soon the disciples will be “fishing for people”—-all kinds of people:  sick, deprived, sorrowful, ostracized, and proud, wealthy, self-satisfied, and lonely.  And not long after that they will have to choose between the values and priorities of this world, and those of God’s kingdom.   In the shadow of the cross, they will get up close and personal with the cost of discipleship; the marriage of truth and suffering.  Days later, at a grave that is missing a body, they will see the light, and find a new beginning.   But the thing about Jesus’ disciples that compels me is not their extraordinary insight—it’s their almost complete lack of it!   They follow Jesus without knowing where he’s leading them; they don’t get enlightened and then take off on a successful teaching and healing ministry.   Their first steps are in darkness; taken only by faith in the One who calls them.

I believe with all my heart that illumination comes as we do the same.  When the night is long, when clouds obscure the sun, when we are uncertain how to move forward—-that is the time to tune our spiritual ears to the Word of God; that is the time to rely on the Son of God to reveal the next steps.   As Christians we affirm Jesus Christ as “the light of the world.”  Getting to know him—his teachings, his example of sacrificial love, his welcome and compassion towards all, his transcendent life beyond even death—-provides the foundation for everything else we do.  Like the fishermen at the lakeshore, for each of us there comes a moment—make that many, many moments—when each us is called to choose.   Don’t delay making that choice until you figure it all out; don’t wait for a perfect, sunny day.   Decide to follow Jesus and learn what it is to walk in the light for a change.

Because there will be change.   A re-ordering of priorities, maybe.  A loosening of one’s grip on the things we think we own.  A certain insecurity because we don’t always know where Jesus is leading us.  We encounter unplanned detours.  We feel unprepared for the circumstances facing us.   The torch of faith may light the way only one step at a time; but take it.  I’ve seen you do that so many times over the past decade. A step in faith toward a more welcoming church, a more flourishing city.  Last month we heard a witness from our friend Hank Doll.  Hank’s had an impressive career as a foundation officer and philanthropic fundraiser—enough so that he might have coasted into a comfortable retirement.  But when he was approached about leading a campaign to raise seven million dollars for an organization committed to urban ministry—sheltering homeless persons, helping released prisoners reintegrate successfully into society, housing North Presbyterian Church whose worn-out building is falling down around them—-Hank said yes.  I asked him “why?” and how he could possibly do that in this economy?  His eyes crinkled with the smile that wreathed his face.  “Somebody had to say yes.  It’s the right thing to do.”

One step into the unknown.  Because here’s the thing– if going where the light is guarantees change, it also promises something else:  joy.  Joy welling up from an unknown spring; strength you didn’t even know you had; hope, that the reality will be different than expected—better than what you anticipated.

Walk where the light is.  Take one step.  And take it with others.  Every church I’ve been involved with as a member or a minister lights candles and sings “Silent Night” at the end of the Christmas Eve service.  It’s a power, symbolic act of hope to light tiny lights that illumine the midnight darkness.  But you are the only church I’ve ever known that doesn’t simply light those candles and hold them as a comforting presence before each individual’s eyes.  No, without so much as a verbal instruction or bulletin note, on the third verse you loft them high, flooding the space with light bright enough to distinguish faces, clear enough to gladden dull hearts with joy, hope, and peace.   That singular gesture proclaims unmistakably that sustaining hope will be produced only when the light is shared, only when it is held in a place for all to see.   The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.  Arise, beloved Fairmount, and let your light shine.       Amen.